Learning Styles FAQ

By Daniel Willingham, from his “Science & Education” blog

There is no scientific evidence supporting “learning styles.”

When I was first getting into education research (about 2005) I was surprised to find how many people–teachers and others–assumed that there was scientific evidence supporting learning styles. In 2009 I made a 7 minute video arguing that this evidence is lacking. (You can see the video here). In 2010, with Cedar Riener, I wrote an article for Change magazine on the topic.

I get a lot of emails about learning styles, so it might be useful to post Frequently Asked Questions, with my answers.

How can you not believe that that people learn differently? Isn’t it obvious?

People do learn differently, but it is important to say exactly how they learn differently, and focus our attention on those differences that really matter. If learning styles were obviously right it would be easy to observe evidence for them in experiments. Yet there is no supporting evidence. There are differences among kids that both seem obvious to us and for which evidence is easily obtained in experiments, e.g., that people differ in their interests, that students vary in how much they think of schoolwork as part of their identity (“I’m the kind of kid who works hard in school”) and that kids differ in what they already know at the start of a lesson.  All three of these have sizable, easily observed effects on learning. Often when people believe they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for ability.

“Style” vs. “ability” sounds like an unimportant difference in semantics. What does it matter?

The idea that people differ in ability is not controversial—everyone agrees with that. Some people are good at dealing with space, some people have a good ear for music, etc. So the idea of “style” really ought to mean something different. If style just means ability, there’s not much point in adding the new term. (Some of the other style distinctions could be matters of ability too: some people might be good at keeping track of details, whereas others are good at grasping the big picture.)

All right then, what do you think is the difference between style and ability?

Ability is that you can do something. Style is how you do it. Thus, one would always be happy to have more ability, but different styles should be equally desirable. Two basketball players may be of equal ability, but have different styles on the court, one being a risk-taker, and the other quite conservative in his play. (Sometimes people say it’s obvious that there are learning styles because blind and deaf people learn differently. This is a difference in ability, not style.)

What would it take for you to accept that there are learning styles?

Pretty simple. You give people the opportunity to use their preferred style or you prevent them from using their preferred style. You should see some difference in the learning of the two groups–their comprehension, their memory, something. That’s the evidence that’s lacking.  There is some evidence that people who say they like to think in words (“verbalizers”) will do so when given the opportunity, and that people who say they like to think in pictures (“visualizers”) will do that when they can. A brief description of this very cool study is here. But students don’t perform the task any better when using their preferred style than when they don’t.

Don’t you think it’s a good idea to teach to all the styles?

It might be, but there’s not much reason to think it’s because kids have different learning styles. Maybe it’s always good for kids to experience any idea in several different ways, even if all the experiences were in the same style. Maybe one of the experiences is especially well-suited to help kids understand the concept. Maybe the repetition is good. If it’s a good idea to teach to all styles, great, but I’d like to figure out why kids are learning more that way, given that other predictions of styles theories aren’t supported.

Your notion of learning styles is dated. No one believes Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic anymore. It’s been superseded by more sophisticated theories.

There’s no evidence for the newer theories either.

I thought the recent review that was in all the newspapers said there was no good evidence, not that the evidence proved that learning styles don’t exist. Why do you say they don’t exist?

The review (Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. 2008. Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 106-119) did conclude just that. The ideal experiment has not been conducted. A lot of less-than-ideal experiments have been conducted, and they are not promising for learning styles theories at all…. As things stand, there’s no scientific reason to think that the theories that have been proposed are correct….

The examples you use in your video are kind of stupid. Learning styles wouldn’t apply to simple list-learning paradigms. It would apply to more high-level tasks.

It’s true that the tests have mostly used simpler materials, although some have used passages of text and not just word lists. But if the effect of using the right (vs. the wrong) style were really sizable, it would be pretty easy to observe.

Maybe learning styles don’t apply to typically-developing children, but they might be useful for kids with a learning disability.

Again, the data are lacking. This hypothesis was popular in the 1970’s and didn’t pan out. For a review, see Arter, J. A. & Jenkins, J. A. (1979). Differential diagnosis-prescriptive teaching: A critical appraisal. Review of Educational Research, 49, 517-555.

My teaching has been informed by learning styles for years, and I think it helps.

When I talk to teachers about this, I often get a question of this sort from a teacher who is clearly a little offended or angry. The teacher seems to take my point to imply that a teacher whose practice is informed by a learning styles theory must not be doing a good job.

It’s important to be clear that learning styles is not a theory of instruction. It is a theory of how the mind works. So when I say “there’s no evidence for learning styles” I am making a claim about the mind, not about instruction.  Lots of stuff aside from learning styles goes into the practice of teachers who ask me this question: their knowledge of kids, their emotional sensitivity, their knowledge of the content, their knowledge of pedagogy, etc.

So you think all kids should be treated the same way?

Not at all. Teachers use their experience to differentiate instruction: for example, knowing that saying “good job” will motivate one child, but embarrass another. One way that science might be useful to teachers is to provide them with categories of kids. I could give them a short survey, for example, and then tell you whether a kid is introverted, extroverted, or in between. I might tell you “lots of data shows that introverts are likely to be embarrassed when praised in front of others.” I’m fabricating the details, obviously, but you get the idea. I’m claiming that there are three types or categories of kids, I’m claiming that these categories are meaningful for the classroom, and I’m claiming that I can successfully categorize kids based on this short survey.

The styles theories are that sort of idea: they seek to categorize kids. Once you know that some people are visualizers and some are verbalizers, you can use that information to inform instruction, in addition to using your experience and judgment. My point is that scientists can’t help teachers in this way. We haven’t developed categories that have proven meaningful.

You don’t have to believe in learning styles theories to appreciate differences among kids, to hold an egalitarian attitude in the midst of such differences, and to try to foster such attitudes in students.

Daniel Willingham is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. His books include, Why Don’t Students Like School? and When Can You Trust the Experts?

See also in ClassWise: “New Study: Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect”

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